Hurricanes, Rockets, and Dinosaurs

At Hickam AFB in Honolulu, Hawaii, the Department of Energy (DOE) Pacific Programs office was humming along fairly routinely between January and September 8th, 1992. The Marshall Islands program was doing well except for that little hiccup when the twenty-two, one kilo packages of brown heroin with a street value of several tens of millions of dollars washed ashore. The headquarters DOE person on Bikini used the radio telephone, which is one big Pacific party line, to call Washington to brag about his great adventure but he was a bit of an idiot. The DEA wanted us, the DOE contractor, to transport the drugs to Kwajalein, a closed military installation via the chartered Air Micronesia flight. It was a dumb plan.  A deal was finally struck with DEA and the drug issue was resolved without bloodshed.

The Johnston Atoll programs were back running smoothly after the hysteria of receiving bent tubing for the reverse osmosis plant repairs calmed down. Nothing compares to the feeling of impotent rage more than bad parts arriving for a critical system at the end of a 3,500 mile logistics chain. Fortunately for the Johnston Atoll inhabitants, the technical operational people who inhabit such remote, isolated locations can make anything, including water and electrical systems, run with nothing but guts and creativity.

The DOE Contracting Officer Technical Representative (COTR) and I had visited all of the DOE sites in the Hawaiian Islands; Haleakala on Maui, Mauna Loa on the big island, the Kauai Test Facility (KTF) on Kauai and, of course, the sites on Oahu. I wanted to fly out to French Frigate Shoals but it wasn’t in the cards. By the first of September, the budgets were well under way. The completion of the quarterly reports signaled the time of the mass exodus of staff from work to go fishing. There was a hurricane called Iniki wandering about the Pacific but, in the little WWII Quonset hut on the far side of the main Hickam runway we called home, all was in order. It didn’t stay that way very long.

Hurricane Iniki had stopped wobbling by September 8th and it was forecast to hit Oahu. By the morning of September 11th, we were believers. Work was called off on Oahu and Kauai. Once the office was cleared, I threw the backup computer tapes in my car and headed to Mililani, the central island community where I lived. Hurricane Iniki grazed Oahu and ran up the channel between Oahu and Kauai. Kauai took the full fury of Iniki, a Category 4 storm. KTF was completely cut-off. No planes would fly there, no boats could be rented, and we couldn’t call. In Honolulu, we worked off our worry by pushing the problem of getting to Kauai. Before mid-morning on September 12th, the phones began to ring and the lines were filled with worried people from all over the globe. The callers had many questions but we had not one answer.  We could only advise them that the SNL managers were smart, contractor staff was loaded with common sense and the facilities were strong. It would take two full days before we were proven right.

KTF dates its call-to-service back to 1962 and a policy level commitment to readiness to resume atmospheric testing. The old Soviet Union embarrassed the U.S. when, during a four month period in 1961, it broke a moratorium on atmospheric testing, blamed the French, and conducted a fifty test series in the atmosphere in four months. The Kennedy administration directed the nuclear test science community, the national nuclear laboratories; LLNL, LANL, and SNL, to respond with a light show of our very own. Because the infrastructure and brain trust had degraded, there was no way to immediately respond. There are times when there is a penalty for declaring victory and moving on without verification. The delayed U.S. nuclear response was Operation Domenic, a thirty-six shot Pacific Proving Ground series to ‘study’ nuclear effects, test new designs and sample the nuclear inventory’s reliability. The AEC (DOE’s predecessor) struck a deal with the Navy to use part of the Navy’s Barking Sands site to base Sandia’s new test facility, which is simply known as the Kauai Test Facility. KTF’s role was and is rockets. During the Cold War (1947-1991), KTF maintained its readiness posture and continued to research and develop non-nuclear components for the nuclear weapons research labs. KTF cites several achievements during this time including: the spinning Attitude Control System used in today’s Guidance, Navigation and Control (GNC) in the space station,  and major improvements in  radial and axial and V-Band separation joint development. The V-band systems have been widely used in the aerospace industry for securing a spacecraft inside a launch vehicle.[1]

KTF was retooling for its post-Cold War research role during my tenure in the Pacific in the early 1990s. DOE provided contractor support for constructing permanent facilities, and a new launch pad. Permanent facilities are a rarity at DOE test sites so it was a nice change of pace.  At that time, KTF was still assembling and launching the Strypi rocket it used during those first years in the 1960s. The Strypi rocket is a foundational plank in SNL’s research platform. Strypi is the name given the rocket in honor of its grabbing the proverbial tiger by the tale or so the story goes. The rocket works well in and out of the atmosphere.

The SNL staff was very protective of their contract workers and visiting KTF was like visiting relatives. The humor and food were always good. It was no surprise to discover that the entire lot of the KTF bunch, including families, rode out Iniki in the launch bunker. Further, while the Honolulu contingent was negotiating to buy a boat to go ‘rescue’ them and threatening the Navy to get what they needed to extract them, the KTF crew was having a party. Everyone was fine. One of the contractor employees lost their house, several other employees’ homes were damaged beyond repair and the island looked like dinosaurs had invaded but every human and their companion dogs, cats and chickens were okay. Houses can and were reconstructed with donated materials and volunteer labor.

The first signs of life from Kauai following Hurricane Iniki were rumors that Steven Spielberg was on-island filming for Jurassic Park. Instead of hunkering down at the resort, he and his film crew took advantage of Iniki, a one-of-a-kind storm that would even impress the dinosaurs.  Naturally, we were at the theater for its opening. DOE Pacific program support staff watched the movie over and over, memorizing the script; “God help us, we are in the hands of engineers.”

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *